Interest in Africa as a new investment area is increasing apace, but this is shadowed by problems concerning land acquisition. The West is keeping a particularly sharp eye on the arrival of Chinese investors. This is very hypocritical, in the opinion of Michel Doortmont, associate professor of international relations and Africa studies at the University of Groningen. ‘Particularly as not so very long ago it was the West which was the major threat.’
‘The continent of Africa is always regarded in the context of dependence. Although China is not the only country to have discovered Africa as an investment area, it’s role is becoming iconic’, according to Doortmont. ‘Suddenly you hear the West shouting the loudest that Africa needs to watch out. The arrival of Chinese investors is apparently a threat to the continent and its development because the Chinese have their own agenda, one that is definitely not in Africa’s interests.’ That is ironic, thinks Doortmont. ‘Not so very long ago we ourselves were the exploiters. In addition, the Chinese haven’t arrived as conquerors with weapons but are trading their way onto the continent, and certainly not only via dubious channels.’
According to Doortmont, it’s high time to view the African continent in a completely different light. ‘Look at it as an interplay of chances and threats rather than labelling Africa as a victim of the world and itself. Africa is constantly seen as the continent of blood diamonds and apartheid. As a lost world. Although you must not underestimate that suffering, you should also not forget to highlight the potential and the opportunities.’
‘One of the key problems in how people view Africa is that the historical dimension of developments on that continent is being ignored’, thinks Doortmont. ‘All sorts of developments are going on. These developments are often regarded by outside opinions as something new, but in many cases it’s more a continuation of processes that have been going on for a long time. Take migration, for example. For three or four centuries Africa has been the migration continent. And this has not only been forced, through slavery and dispossession for example, but also voluntary, through labour migration.’
In Doortmont’s opinion the migration has also lead to development. Some of the knowledge acquired in other countries returns. ‘What we can currently see is that the knowledge migration is no longer by definition a brain drain to Europe and the United States. Recently, South Africa has become an important knowledge provider for the continent. Knowledge is not simply being lost, it’s also coming back and helping the continent on its way.’
Doortmont: ‘You see the same thing with various economic issues. Africa is a continent of natural resources. A great deal of these resources are exported or they end up in the hands of corrupt dictators. I’m certainly not going to deny that, but it also forms part of an historic pattern. What can be regarded as a problem is that the processing of natural resources has never got off the ground there as a result. As a natural resources trader, however, Africa is dyed in the wool. Africans know exactly what they are doing and there, too, there are myriad opportunities for development. In that sense the supposed threat from the Chinese on the continent can be put into perspective. Africa can also make use of them and is already doing so in many cases. It may not yet be enough, but it is happening.’
According to Doortmont, the dependence of Africa and the Africans is overestimated. ‘One of the most common arguments is that due to a lack of capital and knowledge, they are not able to resist the pressure of foreign investors. Of course there’s an inherent risk there, but it’s not all one-way traffic.’ He gives an example from the 1980s. ‘It was said then that globalization would undermine all indigenous cultures and social structures. Globalization would destroy the individuality of Africa.’ Doortmont: ‘It quickly became clear, however, that the so-called Coca Cola economy in Africa was acquiring its own particular character. The imported products and culture acquired their own function and character, adapted to and dovetailing with the indigenous culture. People in Africa always give their own twist to Western influences.’
Doortmont is of the opinion that Africa is well able to sort out many of its problems itself. And this has nothing to do with abandoning the continent to its fate. ‘We in the West must stop automatically being hyper-critical of success or lack of success. Just look at the African human rights regime. It comes nowhere near satisfying all the requirements we set, either institutional or in its implementation. But we mustn’t forget how long it took Europe to develop a human rights regime. What is important is that Africa has taken the first steps and is giving it its own interpretation. The continent is developing at its own pace.’
Dr Michel R. Doortmont (The Hague, 1959) studied history at Erasmus University Rotterdam and Africa Studies at the University of Birmingham (UK). He is associate professor of international relations and Africa studies at the University of Groningen. In addition, he is chair of the Netherlands African Studies Association (NVAS).
The Netherlands African Studies Association is organizing an international conference in Groningen on 28 and 29 October: ‘Africa for Sale, Analysing and Theorizing Foreign Land Claims and Acquisitions’. More information about this conference can be found on www.afrikastudies.nl.
More information: Michel Doortmont, tel. 06 – 538,192 80, e-mail: m.r.doortmont rug.nl
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